David Wright Faladé on the Case for Civil War Revisionism in Film and Literature
“We are writing ourselves closer to the ideals purported at the founding.”
In a pivotal scene in the 1989 film Glory, the story’s hero, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, confronts his commanding officer, Colonel James Montgomery, who has ordered his black soldiers to sack and burn an undefended Confederate village. Matthew Broderick’s Shaw and his “colored volunteers” (Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher) watch in outrage as their counterparts, a unit composed of very recently freed slaves, are let loose on the town. The horde of “contrabands of war,” as they were called—or, otherwise put, of seized enemy property—wear cartoonish red pants beneath their Union blue shell coats as they rampage about, pillaging stately homes. (Shaw’s regiment wear dignified blue on blue, by contrast.)
Though, presumably, the contrabands have spent their entire lives doing gang-labor from sun-to-sun in cotton fields or swampy rice paddies, working rhythmically and in unison, these men cannot manage to march properly as a unit, nor do they seem capable of understanding the gravity of their mission. One of them, seemingly bedazzled by the mere sight of the musket that he wields, begs Montgomery in babbling, barely comprehensible black vernacular English: “The musket, Massa Colonel? Never shoot it. Shoot now?”
Montgomery revels in the wanton cruelty of his troopers. “They’re little children,” he tells Shaw. “They’re little monkey children. You just got to know how to control them.”
Which he does, removing his revolver and gunning down one who strikes a white woman. Just seconds before, the same soldier had knocked a slave woman to the ground, but this hadn’t caused a stir in Montgomery.
As ennobling as the movie was, and brave for its time, Glory also disappointed. To begin, Shaw is the focus of the story. Glory is his movie more than it is that of his black troopers. He is shown to be the one who truly sacrifices as a result of all that he gives up in agreeing to lead a regiment of black men. The black characters, when not reinforcing damaging stereotypes, are merely adjuncts of the drama playing out around Broderick’s Shaw.
The real-life Shaw wrote some 200 letters home during the war; these form the basis of the story told in the movie. Maybe this played a role in the screenwriter’s choice to focus the story on him. Few letters exist from the black soldiers of the regiment themselves—only one that I could find doing a cursory search—and no diaries. For African Americans, records are scant and often non-specific, particularly those from the antebellum era, when blacks went underreported or not reported at all. Without the benefit of diaries and letters—and most slaves were unlettered—how do you tell their individual stories?
Historians of the role of African Americans in American history have found inventive ways to deal with the problem of this notable absence. Their efforts, which are sometimes dismissed or reduced as revisionist, have worked to get black stories into the official record. Historical revisionism—the act of challenging previously held interpretations of a commonly acknowledged set of facts—is often cast in a negative, even a heretical, light. But the US—a society founded on a noble set of ideals, that all people are created equal, born with certain unalienable rights—and also conceived with an incontrovertible flaw—the use of racial slavery in its endeavor to attain this national ambition—needs this sort of frank re-assessment, however unsettling. For living up to an ideal is a long and painstaking process.
I teach writing, and in class, we learn that “error is the site where learning happens,” that writing is rewriting, and that the more revision we do, the closer we come to getting it right. Some in-progress drafts may seem to founder or to regress. But with each revision—or re-vision—a letter-grade B paper eventually becomes a B+ or even an A-.
Not surprisingly, storytellers—writers and other artists, for whom the acts of re-imagining and of reconstruction are central to the process of creating—have been among the important historical revisionists, both for better and for worse. The Confederate statues that are currently being removed—which were erected, notably, 50 years after the defeat of the secessionist states—were themselves a revision of that war’s bloody record. Where the Confederacy had lost the fight, the South gained the upper-hand in its aftermath. The signal effort at revision was not a statue or a monument, though, but a work of fiction—the 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation.Storytellers have been among the important historical revisionists, both for better and for worse.
In it, the Confederate rebellion is recast as a family spat. The title cards tell us that the “first seed” of “disunion” originated with the “bringing of the African to America” and culminated not with the Civil War but, in its wake, with the heroic efforts of the Ku Klux Klan to repair the American family by subjugating the brutish black hordes who, in their uncontrollable lust for miscegenation, had riven it apart. (The Birth of a Nation’s black soldiers are regrettable forebears of Glory’s contraband troopers.)
The movie ends with the Klan parading down Main Street, the national family reunited. In the vision of the film, America was not born of the founding ideals of equality, freedom, and self-determination. Rather, our national identity rested in the embrace of white supremacy.
It is remarkable the effort that the filmmaker, D.W. Griffith, devoted to giving The Birth of a Nation—which was based upon a novel, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s proudly racist agitprop The Clansmen—the overlay and authority of historical fact. Title cards proclaim the scenes depicted to be “historical facsimiles.” Great care was paid to create the impression of visual verisimilitude—of a documentary feel, even before the documentary genre even existed. And the effort paid off.
Woodrow Wilson, a professional historian by training and the first Southern-born president after the Civil War, infamously declared the movie to be “like writing history with lightning.” It’s no wonder that Jim Crow—an attempt to revert to a pre-war racial order rather than to continue to work to achieve our founding ideals—passed easily into custom and law during this very same era.
Just 20 years later came Gone with the Wind, an updated version of The Birth of a Nation. Despite their popular appeal, these two revisions of our national story were clearly not our strongest work. A C-, at best, if we give credit to Gone with the Wind for having merely relegated black players to demeaning supporting roles rather than hanging the fate of the nation upon their eradication.
In 1976, Alex Haley’s Roots reclaimed the history from those who, in the wake of Gone with the Wind, had chosen to believe that slavery wasn’t so bad. Who can forget Levar Burton, in the film adaptation of the novel, strung up by the wrists, conceding, “Toby… My name is Toby….” Toni Morrison unflinchingly revised Haley’s unflinching revision. Despite the initial resistance at home, the international acclaim heaped upon Beloved repudiated any further attempt to write away the impact of slavery on the American psyche and to downplay the contribution of African Americans to our national identity.
Writers and filmmakers continue to retell the story of slavery today, among them, most recently, Colson Whitehead and Barry Jenkins with The Underground Railroad, and James McBride and Ethan Hawke with The Good Lord Bird. In my new novel, Black Cloud Rising, which revisits the same historical moment as Glory, a contraband soldier narrates, retelling one of our national origin stories, the Civil War tale of “brother against brother”—only this time, one is black, the other white, one the former slave of the other.
It would be wrong to liken the current historical revisionism to the sort done by the South in the decades after its defeat, despite any superficial similarities. The present-day work represents the polar opposite, in fact. For in these new drafts, we, as a society, are not desperately clutching at the errors of a flawed social contract. Rather, we are writing ourselves closer to the ideals purported at the founding. Each new assay is a little more probing, a little more nuanced—not in an attempt to contrive a glorified past, as was done by the Southern redeemers, like Dixon, Griffith, and Margaret Mitchell, but in an effort at reckoning, regardless of the pain that this might evoke. Such is the nature of truth-telling.
A B+ now. Maybe even that A-.
Black Cloud Rising by David Wright Faladé is out soon from Grove Press.